Greater Mexico refers both to the geographic region encompassing modern Mexico and its former territories in the United States, and to the Mexican cultural diaspora. Exhibitions of visual and material culture from greater Mexico have played an important role in articulating identities and affiliations that transcend limited definitions of citizenship. Following an introductory text by Jennifer Josten, five scholars offer firsthand insights into the intellectual, diplomatic, and logistical concerns underpinning key border-crossing exhibitions of the “NAFTA era.” Rubén Ortiz-Torres writes from his unique perspective as a Mexico City–based artist who began exhibiting in the United States in the late 1980s, and as a curator of recent exhibitions that highlight the existence of multiple Mexicos and Americas. Clara Bargellini reflects on a paradigm-shifting cross-border exhibition of the viceregal arts of the missions of northern New Spain. Kim N. Richter considers how the arts of ancient Mesoamerica and the Americas writ large figured within the Getty Foundation’s 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial offers insights into productive institutional collaborations with transnational Indigenous stakeholders, focusing on two recent Southern California exhibitions of the Oaxaca-based Tlacolulokos collective. Luis Vargas-Santiago discusses how Chicana/o/x art entered Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2019 as a crucial component of an exhibition about how Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s image has migrated through visual culture. Together, these texts demonstrate how exhibitions can act in the service of advancing more nuanced understandings of cultural and political interactions across greater Mexico.
El Gran México se refiere tanto a la región geográfica que abarca el México moderno como a sus antiguos territorios que hoy forman parte de los Estados Unidos y la diáspora cultural mexicana. Las exposiciones de cultura visual y material del Gran México han jugado un papel importante en la articulación de identidades y pertenencias que abarcan más que nociones relativamente estrechas como la de ser ciudadano de un estado-nación. Tras un texto introductorio de Jennifer Josten, cinco académicos comparten sus experiencias personales acerca de las cuestiones intelectuales, diplomáticas y logísticas que había detrás de algunas importantes exposiciones transfronterizas de los llamados “años del TLC”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escribe desde una perspectiva singular: como artista originario de la Ciudad de México que comenzó a exhibir en los Estados Unidos a finales de la década de 1980, y como curador de exposiciones recientes en las que se ha destacado la existencia de múltiples Méxicos y múltiples Estados Unidos. Clara Bargellini reflexiona sobre una exposición transfronteriza y rupturista de las artes virreinales de las misiones del norte de Nueva España. Kim N. Richter considera cómo las artes de la antigua Mesoamérica y de las Américas figuraron dentro de la iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA de la Fundación Getty del año 2017. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial ofrece una perspectiva acerca de colaboraciones exitosas entre instituciones y interlocutores indígenas transnacionales; examina específicamente dos muestras del colectivo oaxaqueño Tlacolulokos, realizadas recientemente en el sur de California. Luis Vargas-Santiago analiza cómo el arte Chicana/o/x ingresó al Palacio de Bellas Artes de la Ciudad de México en 2019 como un componente crucial de una exposición sobre las migraciones de la imagen del revolucionario mexicano Emiliano Zapata en la cultura visual. Juntos, estos textos demuestran que las exposiciones pueden servir para promover una comprensión más compleja de las interacciones culturales y políticas en el Gran México.
Grande México se refere tanto à região geográfica que abrange o México moderno e seus antigos territórios nos Estados Unidos, quanto à diáspora cultural mexicana. Exposições de cultura visual e material do Grande México há muito desempenham um papel importante na articulação de identidades e afiliações que transcendem definições limitadas de cidadania. Seguindo um texto introdutório de Jennifer Josten, cinco estudiosos oferecem sua perspectiva sobre as preocupações intelectuais, diplomáticas e logísticas por trás das mais influentes exposições transfronteiriças da “era do NAFTA”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escreve de seu ponto de vista singular como artista originário da Cidade do México que começou a expor nos Estados Unidos no fim dos anos 1980, e como curador de exposições recentes que destacaram a existência de múltiplos Méxicos e Américas. Clara Bargellini reflete sobre uma exposição transfronteiriça transformadora focada na arte vice-real das missões do norte da Nova Espanha. Kim N. Richter considera como as artes da Mesoamérica antiga e das Américas em geral figuraram em grande escala na iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA de 2017 da Fundação Getty. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial oferece sua visão sobre colaborações institucionais produtivas entre interlocutores indígenas transnacionais, examinando específicamente duas exposições recentes do coletivo oaxaquenho Tlacolulokos no sul da Califórnia. Luis Vargas-Santiago discute como a arte chicana entrou no Palácio de Belas Artes da Cidade do México em 2019 como um componente crucial de uma exposição sobre as migrações da imagem do revolucionário mexicano Emiliano Zapata na cultura visual. Juntos, esses textos demonstram como exposições podem servir para avançar compreensões mais complexas de interações culturais e políticas através do Grande México.
Gal rabenee ladxuu / Para el orgullo de tu pueblo / For the Pride of Your Hometown1
As cultural institutions worldwide are being scrutinized for their policies of inclusion and held accountable by community stakeholders to take action and produce tangible change, museums need successful models that can help them chart a path forward.2 When asked to offer my perspectives on exhibition practices in greater Mexico for this Dialogues, I wanted to demonstrate how institutions can successfully organize and collaborate across international borders, meaningfully engage with community partners, and highlight forms of cultural representation created by artists of Indigenous heritage. This essay is my attempt to initiate dialog and spread awareness about best practices, drawn from my personal and professional experiences with the 2017 exhibition Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA. This installation of eleven movable murals by the collective Tlacolulokos (a combination of the name of our native pueblo of Tlacolula and the word locos, or “crazies”), composed of Oaxacan artists Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, was commissioned by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles (LFLA) and staged in the rotunda of the Los Angeles Central Library as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative.3 The title of the exhibition evokes how the murals make visible the experiences of Indigenous Oaxacans, many of whom speak Native languages and are migrants in both Mexico and the United States. It is my hope that the project team’s significant engagement with the Zapotec community in the heart of Los Angeles can serve as a model for other institutions.
Institutions cannot ethically showcase cultures without ensuring that they also include and engage with people who come from the communities they are highlighting. Southern California is home to over 250,000 Zapotec language speakers, and Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA sought to amplify those voices, beginning with the project team itself (fig. 1). My involvement in this project has taught me that true transformation is possible when institutions hire and collaborate with community members whose lived experience embodies and reflects themes that institutional programming seeks to address. Moreover, in order to be truly responsible and equitable, institutions must be willing to reimagine traditional work models so that they favor inclusion and traversing boundaries.
The exhibition was coordinated and produced by Maureen Moore and Louise Steinman—the visionary former leaders of the ALOUD lecture series at the LFLA—in conjunction with the Los Angeles Public Library.4 My involvement began in 2015 when, as an Indigenous scholar and member of the Oaxacan diaspora in Los Angeles, I was hired as a project consultant. In interacting with Moore and Steinman, I quickly learned that I was working with people who were willing to listen and respond to community stakeholders without reverting to a dominant agenda: just the sort of inclusive, risk-taking leadership that makes true collaboration possible. In keeping with the exhibition’s multilingual, transnational focus, Visualizing Language built a network of collaborators across greater Mexico. In addition to the Tlacolulokos collective, the team included Mexico City–based curator Amanda de la Garza, as well as Zapotec speakers, documentary filmmakers, writers, scholars, college students, and editors. The onus fell on the library to navigate all of the complexities of communications, contracts, and payments that this structure required.
In my academic and creative projects focused on Oaxaca, I document what it means to be Indigenous and migrant in twenty-first-century Los Angeles and Oaxaca. Oaxacalifornia, a term that gestures to the multifaceted geographic and cultural identities within my extended community, describes much more than a continuous flow of people and a network of Oaxacan connections; it signifies a way of life. The transnational Oaxacalifornian community is composed of four generations of people of Oaxacan heritage; some of us were born in Oaxaca, others in California. Our community’s cohesion is dependent on our Oaxacan identity, which is founded on a long history of Indigenous epistemology that we reproduce in contemporary society.5
From the day I visited Tlacolulokos's mural Con el fuego en las manos (With Fire in Her Hands, 2015) (fig. 2) in Oaxaca City, I became dedicated to including the duo in Visualizing Language. As a native of the Oaxacan geographical region called Valles Centrales (Central Valleys), I immediately recognized the young woman’s regalia from the town of Quialana.6 I understood the tattoos on her arms highlighting pre-Columbian Zapotec geometric designs. I was drawn to her body position, the tears falling from her eyes, and her facial expression. This imagery, and the emotions conveyed, made me feel recognized and validated as a transnational Indigenous woman. As I stood in front of this mural, I was no longer invisible, nor the target of the perpetual racism directed against people like me. It was incredibly empowering to see a public mural in a large-scale, urban setting showing aspects of Zapotec identity that might otherwise be confined to internal audiences and private spaces. From that moment onward, I committed my efforts to helping the Visualizing Language team understand why Tlacolulokos’s art was a necessary element of our project.7
The nature of my role evolved, especially when we began communicating regularly with people on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Drawing from my identity as a Zapotec scholar and my experience doing freelance museum work, I felt a responsibility to honor the teachings of my Indigenous community by collaborating in a multidirectional way that respected individual skills, thus strengthening the collective endeavor. I coordinated research trips, compiled contact lists, and served as a liaison between the Visualizing Language team and the Oaxacan community in Los Angeles. I also helped Tlacolulokos with their initial proposals and oversaw the translation of their mural titles from Spanish into Zapotec and English.8 Both Amanda de la Garza and I were keen to recognize the subtleties of working with our Mexican collaborators, which allowed the team to coordinate the contributions of participants in both countries more effectively.
Moore and Steinman exemplified the fact that effective leadership must be willing to take chances in order to transform institutional practices. Their decision to hire me as a principal collaborator and liaison with the Oaxacalifornia community allowed for a multidirectional mode of collaboration, as our work together defied hierarchies to promote mutual respect for one another's knowledge, perspective, and experience. Such collaboration also fostered respect for our connections to various individuals, organizations, and institutions. The three years I dedicated to the Visualizing Language project were among the most positive and rewarding of my career, including the extensive personal time and volunteer activities that the other team members and I invested. We made space to meet with stakeholders, sought community forums, and designed language surveys. The curatorial/production team personally attended many Oaxacan community events. The grant budget allowed for two crucial research trips to Oaxaca for the LA team, and for a fully funded, four-week artist residency that allowed time for Tlacolulokos to engage with the Oaxacan community in LA.9 A Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship funded the assistant position during the summer that led up to the exhibition opening.10 Aaron Sonnenschein and I cotaught a community engagement course at our respective California State University campuses, Los Angeles and Northridge.11 My colleagues in this project were compassionate, daring, and willing to take risks as we united to create an immersive work model reflective of the community spirit of the exhibition.
Visualizing Language is also a successful example of how institutions can effectively deal with controversial histories depicted in public art. The Tlacolulokos murals were installed in the library’s second-floor rotunda, where they highlighted the presence of immigrant Oaxacans in LA and provided a contrast to Dean Cornwell’s 1933 murals, which are permanently installed in the rotunda’s upper registers. Cornwell's murals represent four eras of settler colonialism in Greater Mexico (modern-day California) through an imperialist lens. Because the Tlacolulokos murals are empowering and subversive, they challenge the racist depictions of Indigenous people in the 1933 murals, instead showing the complexity of Indigenous society through the dignified and sometimes defiant body positions of rural-turned-urban Native people forced to navigate two countries and multiple social layers. This contrast and juxtaposition initiated many conversations about the way we understand the history and present-day realities of the original inhabitants of the Americas.12
For me, the exhibition evoked memories of the day in community college when I first learned about the intellectual accomplishments of my Zapotec ancestors who began writing their histories over 2,500 years ago. On that day, I finally felt free to show pride in who I was as a Zapotec woman born in Oaxaca and an undocumented child migrant to the United States, raised transnationally between Tlacolula and Los Angeles. I was finally able to break free from the shame that had been imposed by other Mexicans and people of Latin American heritage in Mexico, LA, and beyond, who often directed their racism at people like me, calling us oaxacos, oaxaquitas, or indios. I wished that I had felt free to voice the dignity displayed by my community sooner—both in Oaxaca and in our gatherings in Los Angeles—where we proudly adhere to the ceremonies, customs, and traditions of our pueblos of origin. Twenty years later, with the opening of Visualizing Language, I finally witnessed my immigrant community’s complex history elevated to international renown and celebrated by a multicultural audience in the nation’s second largest metropolis.13
Naa zuah par i’gua histor xtena / Estoy aqui para contar mi historia / I Am Here to Tell My Story
The exhibition’s inaugural event was held in honor of the Oaxacan community at the Los Angeles Central Library on September 16, 2017. Banda Grandeza Oaxaqueña, a youth music ensemble from the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, performed while Grupo Folklórico Guish Bac from Tlacolula led a procession into the rotunda where the murals were on display (fig. 3). Mateo’s Ice Cream, a Los Angeles-based business whose owners are from the Oaxacan community of Matatlán, offered Oaxacan-style paletas (popsicles) to guests. Tlacolulokos held a stencil-making workshop, while Spanish-speaking docents (myself included) guided guests through the exhibition. Many of the 5,173 guests at the Central Library that day joined the celebration, and many people from the Oaxacan community arrived in their regalia throughout the day—even after the event ended.
I attended the exhibition opening with my Zapotec mother, whose tenacity and determination drove our migration from Tlacolula to Los Angeles. Her parents endured many racist attacks in Oaxaca City when they went there to sell tamales during the July festival season. My father was also at the opening; he is the son of a bracero who worked in the fields throughout the United States. Humiliated by fellow Mexican farmworkers for speaking Zapotec, my grandfather chose not to teach his children his native language. I was also accompanied by my life partner who, as a monolingual Zapotec speaker, was bullied by his Latino coworkers in LA for not speaking Spanish. Recalling these and other oral histories, I stood at the entrance to the Central Library overcome with emotion, holding my Zapotec baby.
The exhibition's success and enduring impact rests on several important factors. Since Visualizing Language was about Indigenous language speakers from Oaxaca living in LA, we prioritized linguistic inclusivity by providing bilingual materials (Spanish/English) for the exhibition wall texts, audio and video companion pieces, catalog, public programming, and website content. As such, we were the only institution of over seventy participating in PST: LA/LA that foregrounded Spanish over English. Beyond this, the audio portion of the didactic materials was available in Zapotec, Spanish, and English. Finally, we ensured that a wide variety of resource materials related to the exhibition were free and accessible to a broad audience.14
In this same vein, the public programming that accompanied Visualizing Language reflected careful consideration of the needs and expectations of Oaxacan stakeholders in particular, and of Spanish-speaking audiences in general.15 The library hosted events that engaged over 3,600 people in libraries across the city, all free of charge! The six keynote ALOUD programs coordinated by the Visualizing Language team were filled to capacity in the Central Library's 235-seat auditorium—all of them presented bilingually with simultaneous language interpretation provided by the language justice collective Antena Los Angeles.
Looking through the #VisualizingLanguage and #OaxacainLA hashtags that we encouraged as part of the media programming for the exhibit, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment at seeing Angelenos of all ages and backgrounds participating in over seventy-five library programs that highlighted Oaxacan society, history, language, and culture.16 The social media content includes posts and comments from Oaxacalifornians of different generations and geographical origins. Knowing that over one hundred thousand people visited the exhibit, and that many more encountered the exhibition online, gives me life. Seeing our complex history validated in one of the most democratic civic spaces in the city of Los Angeles—the Downtown Central Library—is unforgettable.17
In his review of several PST: LA/LA exhibitions, the New York Times’s Holland Cotter called the Tlacolulokos murals “playful.”18 While this may seem like a positive word, it fails to recognize the way Oaxacalifornians see ourselves and our experiences as Indigenous Mexican peoples. While it is true that the Tlacolulokos’ works do not speak to all lived experiences of migrant Oaxacans, they do convey layers of our identity, both individual and collective. The mural A donde quiera que vayas (Wherever You May Go, 2017, fig. 4) embodies this plurality in its representation of young Oaxacan students in Los Angeles who participate in the musical ensembles of their parents’ pueblos. These Oaxacalifornians grow up playing the music their parents brought with them on their journey north. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, this generation’s identity is invisibilized by terms such as Latinx, Hispanic, or even Mexican.19 In contrast, A donde quiera que vayas epitomizes the complex definition of Oaxacalifornia as both a transnational culture and a geographic region (both real and imagined) that transcends political boundaries, along with an ideology of guarding Oaxacan culture “wherever we may go.”
Tlacolulokos's art touches upon themes such as the price migrants pay for the dreams we aspire to realize when we migrate north. For many whose parents brought us to the United States as children, education is central to those dreams. Historically, education was denied to many Indigenous Oaxacans as part of the institutionalized, racist approach to forcing mestizaje upon Mexican society. Education is a prime component of social mobility for Zapotecs—a means of earning our way into various forms of success in the United States. As a scene depicting a young Zapotec woman reading a book in Tlacolulokos’s mural El tamaño de tu sufrimiento (The Size of Your Suffering, 2017) attests, education opens doors for many Oaxacans, as it did for me. But this success comes at the cost of trauma caused by the racism, rejection, and violence experienced by those of us who crossed borders in search of opportunity.20 I am part of the “1.5 generation” in Oaxacalifornia; I am also the first to graduate high school and the first in my entire family (on both sides of the border) to obtain a doctoral degree.21 My parents left their families, their property, and their community in Oaxaca and worked multiple low-wage jobs in LA, all while feeling isolated and rejected by fellow immigrants. Nonetheless, they actively encouraged my siblings and me to pursue higher education. As a community member and an academic, one of my objectives is to ensure that my scholarship functions as a service to my community—something that is all-too-often missing in academic exchange. Thus, my scholarship is a form of activism.
Xa rgwireng loo? / ¿Como te ven? / How Are You Seen?
In 2018, the Visualizing Language team leaders secured a home for the Tlacolulokos murals in the permanent collection of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, California, where they are currently installed in the exhibition Oaxacalifornia: Through the Experience of the Duo Tlacolulokos.22 Whether its organizers were conscious of it or not, the approach of the MOLAA exhibition perpetuated a number of systemic problems that have historically plagued the Oaxacan community. Most notably, the planning and execution of the Oaxacalifornia exhibition and its opening event missed opportunities to counter the invisibility and exoticizing gaze to which we are often subjected as Indigenous peoples. Had it not been for my request to provide a guest list for the opening, the Oaxacan community itself would have been completely absent. When the fifteen Oaxacalifornian invitees finally met at the entrance of the museum, we entered the institutional space feeling suspicious of the public’s gaze, questioning how the other attendees were seeing us.
The Oaxacalifornia exhibition tells the story of our community, but the limited invitations extended to us stood in stark contrast to the vibrancy of Oaxacan life that exists in this city. Unfortunately, these invitations were the extent of MOLAA’s community outreach. I invited Ms. Rufina Morales, a Zapotec native speaker and elder from the Sierra Norte community of Zoogoocho, to give the introductory remarks. The two of us had prepared our Zapotec and Spanish welcome statements in advance, but the MOLAA organizers neglected to communicate with us about our plans. As a result, no English version of our comments was prepared, and we were asked to translate on the spot for the largely English-speaking audience. As a proud Oaxacalifornian, I felt that our culture was being exhibited rather than celebrated at MOLAA. Photographers asked us repeatedly to pose for their cameras, but I felt we were being viewed as exotic spectacles rather than honored guests (fig. 5).
The general lack of connection to our presence was exemplified by the ways in which many non-Indigenous guests expected us to perform as impromptu lecturers on the significance of the art as well as our culture, attire, and experiences. Even as social distancing demands resulting from COVID-19 have driven many museums to provide online tours of their exhibits, MOLAA missed the opportunity to invite members of the Oaxacalifornia community to provide narratives or otherwise contribute their voices to the virtual version of the exhibit—and to compensate them for it.23 My experience of the MOLAA exhibition, and that of others in my community, could have been different if the institution had sought genuine collaboration with the Oaxacalifornian community and shown the same commitment to community engagement that was extended to the murals now represented in its permanent collection.
Quite often, Indigenous Oaxacan culture is showcased through stereotypical depictions of folklore that are entirely dismissive of the long history of Indigenous intellectual achievement. There is a persistent tendency to display our rich culture and diverse peoples as exotic objects of desire.24 Contemporary Indigenous art such as that produced by Tlacolulokos and other members of Native Oaxacan communities reflects the nuance of our complex collective histories. These representations by Oaxacan artists bring awareness to the injustices experienced by people whose contributions to the social and economic fabric of the United States are too often rendered invisible.25
Museums hold so much potential for engaging with community voices through programming and outreach. The contrast between the Central Library and MOLAA exhibitions offers several valuable lessons about community engagement. While Tlacolulokos’s murals and their content reflect the sentiments of many Oaxacans, MOLAA’s approach invisibilized the entire production and curatorial team who made the original Visualizing Language exhibition possible. In essence, these were individuals who donated their intellectual labor in the form of didactic materials and exhibition texts, but received treatment consistent with the invisibilization of the Oaxacan community at large. This shows how our story continues to be told by others, even when an exceptional foundation from which to direct the narrative has already been provided. Nevertheless, it takes us speaking up in order to be heard. I hope that more institutions will follow the model established by the Visualizing Language team, and always bear in mind that there are communities who will hold them accountable. Museums and art organizations must pursue active projects of inclusion, such as policies and practices that include hiring people of color to their permanent staff. Otherwise, underrepresented groups will only continue to be marginalized.
Art that gives voice to underrepresented communities provides a source of empowerment, inspiration, and pride. For example, in the work of Tlacolulokos, Oaxacans can find images that strike a chord with our personal journeys as transnational Indigenous people. Such artwork also allows us to participate in the reproduction of our culture beyond the communities where these practices were initially created and guarded for over five hundred years. The images created by the artists speak to the ways in which migration produces a multidirectional impact on cultures.26 Indigenous Oaxacans might migrate north, but their children will likely travel south at some point. At the same time, families who are transnational like mine transform in the process of assimilation. Collectively, we fulfill our truth as participants in Oaxacalifornian life. We carry on our traditions and uphold our culture to demonstrate the love we have for our place of origin and to honor the teachings of our ancestors.
In our awareness of our migrant history, we also accept the transformations. We know that we are not static—historically, we have never been. A significant challenge up to this point has been sharing our ancestral teachings with younger generations, but the internet is helping with this now.27 Projects that amplify Indigenous language-speakers and their perspectives are increasingly visible online.28 Oaxacan youths, many of them college students, are engaging digitally in new ways with people who share similar experiences, origins, and ideals. They can connect in ways that I would have never imagined growing up in the twentieth century without a mobile device nor access to wireless internet.29
My two Zapotec daughters—trilingual in Zapotec, Spanish, and English—are now experiencing something that was unimaginable in my own youth growing up in Los Angeles. One was born in time for the opening of the Visualizing Language exhibit, while the other was born just after the closing. I felt proud to have something to show them, the newest generation of Zapotec speakers and Oaxacans born in Los Angeles with very close ties to their Indigenous roots. I am even more energized when I imagine what they will teach me about their experiences and what they will share with the world about their perspectives, growing up in a multilingual, Indigenous Oaxacan environment.
Tu rni tu liu, cali zoo? / ¿Quién cuenta tu historia? / Who Tells Your Story?
In closing, I challenge both grant and publicly funded organizations to recognize the need to fund projects that will result in more inclusive programming and, ultimately, more diverse institutions. Visualizing Language was an exhaustive project whose level of research and production was made possible by ample funding from the Getty Foundation and the California Humanities endowment. It would be challenging for a small arts organization to accomplish such a project alone, not only in terms of funding, but also because it requires a fundamental understanding by the core team members of the high level of community engagement needed to get it right. The exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library provided a democratic and inviting space where Oaxacalifornians could feel embraced, acknowledged, and seen in a positive light. Now that I know what is possible, and having experienced the model that the Visualizing Language team provided, I refuse to accept anything less. We must move forward in daring new ways to procure true community engagement, so that underserved communities may be able to tell their own stories—just as mine did.
¡Mil gracias! to Monica Aguilar, Diana Gomez, Jennifer Josten, Maureen Moore, Reyna Perez, Narsiso Rodriguez, Ignacio Santiago, and Michelle Vasquez for contributing images, inspiration, and commentary to drafts of this essay. My sincere gratitude to my mother Rufina Marcial-Garcia and my father Nicolas Flores-Rios, whose love and care for my Zapotec babies have been a magnificent form of support as I worked from home under the pandemic lockdown.
The subtitles in this essay, in Zapotec, Spanish, and English, are drawn from the titles of murals produced by the artist collective Tlacolulokos, as well as from questions posed to the public during their exhibition in the entrance hallways at the Central Library of Los Angeles in 2017.
Current and former museum staff from several institutions have recently made public calls for change in the way these institutions engage with diversity. The dissemination of an open letter to the Getty Board of Trustees and digital activism through the use of the hashtag #changethemuseum has called museum practices into question. See “An Open Letter to Getty Board of Trustees” Google form, 2020, https://docs. google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScX6KnaQz6oeyx0YqmJNpnXqh7tG4RavT7Pk4HPz3oZhyAiOA/viewform.
The exhibition ran from September 2017 to August 2018. For more on the exhibition and its related programs, see “Opening Soon: Visualizing Language Oaxaca in LA,” Fifth & Flower (blog), Library Foundation of Los Angeles, September 14, 2017, https://lfla.org/opening-soon-visualizing-language-oaxaca-l/; Samanta Helou, “On the Walls of the LA Public Library Zapotec Artists Tell the Story of Oaxacalifornia,” Remezcla, 2017, https://remezcla.com/features/culture/visualizing-language-oaxaca-zapotec-pst/; and David Shook, ed., Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA: A Project Catalogue, trans. Victor Terán, José Rico Carrillo, Francisco Larios, Martin Lopez-Vega, Ana Paula Noguez Mercado, David Shook, and Clare Sullivan (Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2017).
Steinman was the founder and former curator of the LFLA’s ALOUD series. Moore, former associate director of the ALOUD series, was producer of Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA. Both of their positions were eliminated in 2018, one week before the official closing of the exhibition at the LA Public Library. Moore had implemented bilingual programming for ALOUD in 2012 and established partnerships with the Feria Internacional del Libro Oaxaca, LéaLA, and the University of Guadalajara. The impact of her dismissal will resonate throughout the cultural world of greater Mexico.
For more on Indigenous epistemology and some ways in which it is manifested, see Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, “Indigenous Voices in Pedagogical Materials: Zapotec Number Systems and Indigenous Epistemologies, post 2,” Global SL Blog, Campus Compact, February 27, 2020, https://compact.org/indigenous-voices-in-pedagogical-materials-zapotec-number-systems-and-indigenous-epistemologies-post-2/.
Tlacolulokos first displayed Con el fuego en las manos in Oaxaca’s Casa de la Ciudad, a community center dedicated to local art and culture. The young woman featured in this mural lives in the pueblo of San Bartolomé Quialana, located 4 kilometers east of Tlacolula.
On how I introduced Tlacolulokos to the LFLA team in Tlacolula at the famous Sunday market, where Zapotecs from all over Oaxaca speak their respective varieties of Zapotec, see Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, “A Perspective from the South: Tlacolula to L.A.,” in Shook, Visualizing Language, 80–83.
In order to demonstrate the diversity of Zapotecan languages, I consulted speakers of different varieties. These included José Ángel Cruz Morales from San Bartolomé Quialana (Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii / The Way of the Elders), Zeferino Mendoza from Teotitlán del Valle (Gal rabenee ladxuu / For the Pride of Your Hometown), Victor Terán from Juchitán (Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu / In Memory of the Forgotten), and Ignacio Santiago from San Felipe Güilá (Naa zuah par i'gua histor xtenna / I Am Here to Tell My Story). The Tlacolulokos artists themselves do not speak Zapotec.
During this residency, the artists painted two murals: South Central Dreams (2016) in South Central Los Angeles in collaboration with the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), and another, Oaxaca Ingobernable (2016), at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles.
The intern, Jorge Martinez, a Mixtec from the Tlaxiaco region of Oaxaca and a US college student, was hired by Moore and Steinman for a permanent position at the LFLA once the exhibition opened.
The students enrolled in this course served as bilingual docents to the exhibit as part of the Library Volunteer Program at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Shizu Saldamando’s art installation at the Palms Metro Station is another example of contemporary art interventions that counter the whitewashing of Indigenous history and contemporary realities. It features my likeness and takes into account the Oaxacan enclave in West Los Angeles, which tends to be Zapotec from several communities in the Valles Centrales. See ICA LA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), “ArtMetroPolis: Shizu Saldamando,” YouTube video, 8:35 min, April 20, 2017, https://youtu.be/70QOngEy__4.
Three years after the closing of the Visualizing Language exhibit, the impact continues. See the opinion piece by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Mónica Ramírez in the New York Times, “How Latinos Can Win the Culture War,” September 2, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/02/opinion/sunday/latinos-trump-election.html.
See “Resources,” Library Foundation of Los Angeles, http://oaxaca.lfla.org/resources/.
For audio podcasts and videos, see “Media Archive,” Library Foundation of Los Angeles, https://lfla.org/media-archive/?search=Visualizing+Language.
Many people continued to use the hashtag #OaxacainLA after the exhibition ended.
The success of the library exhibition was evident in the wide acclaim garnered by the artists. Yet the murals became ironic symbols of our migration stories: they were able to cross multiple international borders, unlike many Oaxacans. Questioned by US immigration authorities about their purpose for travel to the United States after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in January 2018, when Tlacolulokos were invited to paint a mural for a restaurant in that city, immigration officials revoked the artists’ tourist visas for five years and returned them to Mexico.
Holland Cotter, “A Head-Spinning, Hope-Inspiring Showcase of Art,“ New York Times, September 21, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/arts/design/a-head-spinning-hope-inspiring-showcase-of-art.html.
See Lourdes Alberto, “Coming Out as Indian: On Being an Indigenous Latina in the US,” Latino Studies 15, no. 2 (July 2017): 247–53.
See Esmeralda Bermudez, “On the Shoulders of Our Parents—the Cooks, Nannies and Gardeners—We’ve Traveled Far,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-08-05/readers-share-inspiring-family-stories-about-parents.
The 1.5 generation refers to people who were brought to the United States as young children. My mother brought my two- and four-year-old brothers across the border along with me when I was six. On the topic of Zapotec migrant children in US schools, see Rafael Vásquez, “Zapotec Identity as a Matter of Schooling,” Association of Mexican American Educators Journal 13, no. 2 (2019): 66–90, https://amaejournal.utsa.edu/index.php/AMAE/article/view/233/224.
See “Oaxacalifornia: Through the Experience of the Duo Tlakolulokos,” MOLAA, https://molaa.org/oaxacalifornia; and Areli Morales, “After Being Deported, These Oaxacan Muralists Are Back and Now Have a ‘Permanent’ Show at MOLAA,” L.A. TACO, March 5, 2020, www.lataco.com/oaxacan-mural-deported-molaa/.
In another indicator, the audio guide for MOLAA’s virtual tour contains several interpretive mistakes, such as the definition of Oaxacalifornia.
Mojave poet Natalie Díaz discusses this exoticizing in her essay “A Lexicon of the Indigenous Body: Images of Autonomy and Desire” in Shook, Visualizing Language, reprinted in Los Angeles Review of Books, December 8, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-lexicon-of-the-indigenous-body-images-of-autonomy-and-desire/.
From March 21 to July 5, 2020, Narsiso Martínez, a Long Beach–based Zapotec artist from the community of Santa Cruz Papalutla, had an exhibit at the Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles’s Chinatown titled Superfresh, which included works that employ flattened cardboard produce crates as the surface on which he depicts farmworkers, many of whom are Indigenous. See “Narsiso Martinez Superfresh,” Charlie James Gallery, www.cjamesgallery.com/show-detail/superfresh.
See the work of Brenda Nicolas, “‘Soy de Zoochina’: Gendering Identity and Belonging among the Children of Indigenous Migrants,” Latino Studies Journal (forthcoming, 2021).
For example, see #ZapotecoColonial and #UsatuVoz on Twitter. Also see the Ticha Project, a digital text explorer, which allows online users to explore an array of Zapotec-language documents, complete with transcriptions, translations, and linguistic analysis. See “TICHA: A Digital Text Explorer for Colonial Zapotec,” Ticha, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, https://ticha.haverford.edu/en/.
Oaxacan Twitter exists. There are also Oaxacan influencers whose followers are attracted to them precisely for their identity as individuals of Indigenous Oaxacan heritage.
OaxaCal is a student-led space at University of California Berkeley, by Manuel Morales (Tlacolula) and Celeste Rojas (Solaga), funded in the fall of 2020. The Indigenous Oaxacan Cooperative (IOC SoCal, www.instagram.com/ioc_socal/) is part of this new generation of Oaxacan activists, as is We are Neto, a collective of Oaxacans who are working to visibilize Indigenous issues (www.instagram.com/weare.neto/). Other Oaxacan creatives include Normz la Oaxaqueña, cofounder of a popular cultural event called Cumbiaton; Diana la Zapoteca, who produces beauty tutorials on YouTube; Reyna Chabeli, a Zapotec artist and graphic designer; and Moneycaa, an Oaxacalifornian influencer with a wide following on Twitter and Instagram. Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, Oaxacan scholar and member of these cyber Oaxacan communities, notes that these virtual spaces work to not only preserve and share traditions among Oaxacan youth but also open new avenues from which to construct, imagine, and “remix” new perspectives about Oaxacan culture and diaspora. Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, Zoom meeting with author, July 14, 2020.